“No Justice, No Peace!” chanted the crowd, as its huddled mass of multiracial rage marched into the November night. That was a year ago, in autumn of 2014, when scores of murders of unarmed African-American men, women and children forced a renewed focus on race in the United States.
I was proud to march that night. I was happy, as a Millennial, to help deliver the demand for change that my generation was bringing to the doorstep of the American social order. In a storm of racial strife, I felt personally responsible for reconciling a moment of societal fracture into a meaningful peace, without compromising my search for justice. Outrage and token solutions weren’t enough.
Those anti-police brutality protests of late 2014 weren’t the last. They continue because the brutality continues. With every YouTube vid of an excessive application of force annihilating a black body—and every surname of the slain turned into a hashtag—many have lost faith in a system operating on its worst behavior. When police who are paid by the public to keep the peace seem bent on proceeding in warlike fashion, everything about the society they protect becomes suspect.
Law enforcement is but one star in a constellation of institutions that are critical to the maintenance of order in American life. When there’s a black hole there, it means that everything else in the orbit comes under question. If black lives matter less, then everyone else’s do, too. But the national outcry about police brutality isn’t only about race; it’s also about the quality of the social fabric that ties all Americans together. And that social fabric has always been tattered.
There are no “greater times” to return to. This is worth remembering during the holiday season, when representations of domestic happiness contrast greatly with the complicated reality of our private lives. “Knowing that the family has always been in crisis would better enable people to deal with their problems than if they continued to romanticize the good old days,” writes Evergreen professor Stephanie Coontz. Even in its most idealized form—the golden age of capitalism in the mid-20th century—the American social order assured exploitation of practically everyone involved. And yet Americans are still haunted by images of a purportedly more perfect past.
The halcyon days of post-WWII stability have faded, but the expectations of that era are largely still in place. Deep down or on the surface, many of us still believe that men are supposed to accept wage exploitation at work in exchange for take-home pay that allows them to control their private lives behind closed doors. Many of us still think that women are supposed to defer to men, and accept limited personal and professional development in exchange for male attention and the stability that’s supposed to come with traditional heterosexual partnership.
In addition to nannies who are supposed to perform maternal tasks for near-poverty wages that any mother knows are too low, children are also supposed to perform household chores, help raise their siblings for little or no pay and endure the psychological straits of their parents’ expectations. In exchange, these parents are supposed to provide their children with a firm foundation for their futures.
But men buckle under the pressure of providing, women are weary of masculinity’s vice grip and children grow tired of being patronized. The status quo makes everyone anxious that they aren’t living up to its expectations. In exchange for entry into this order of affairs, people of color are supposed to provide emotional reinforcement, entertainment, and yet more cheap labor to those already in it.
For some, this order of things still constitutes something like an American Dream. But this kind of stability isn’t worth keeping—because peace built on the shame of others constantly borders on war.
Society is an abstraction of the million little wires that bind us together at the atomic level. When the old bargains—between men and women, parents and children, the privileged and the oppressed—can no longer support the social order as a whole, people search for peace in narrower, seemingly safer places. From digital devices that let us retreat into imaginary worlds to the divisive state of our political discourse, signs of what historian Daniel Rodgers once described as “The Age of Fracture” are everywhere. We’ve never expected less from society, because society has never expected less of us.
When systemic change seems so far-fetched, we turn inward for solutions to societal fracture. Our own personal relationships can show us the way to societal solutions.
In the year since Ferguson became a war zone, I’ve sought peace in my personal life. Today, “home” is two places: the apartment in North Seattle where I help my father take care of my disabled sister and a single-family home in the Central District where my partner and I grow closer by the day. Both of these relationships fly in the face of expectation because they both take place in a social context beset by conflict.
I’m a Millennial and my dad is a Baby Boomer, and I suspect that our occasional conflicts represent what Pew Research demographer Paul Taylor calls a “generational showdown.” A digital native, I can be emotionally unavailable and aloof as a cumulonimbus; an immigrant from Jamaica and a veteran of 1970s New York, he can be condescending and abrasive as concrete. Last Thanksgiving, while debating the merits of Twitter and Facebook as investment opportunities, he took it upon himself to explain to me how Facebook works and why it was an inferior product to Twitter—despite the fact that he doesn’t have an account on either.
In the past, this kind of conversation might be grounds for a six-month-long silent treatment. But in the bigger picture, I’ve learned that minor spats and controlled competition give character and texture to a relationship. Working toward perfecting our relationship means more to me than preserving the illusion of independence. So when we talk about stocks this holiday season, I won’t be bringing pumpkin pie—I’ll be bringing pie charts. Sometimes, maintaining a meaningful relationship means meeting people on their terms.
Meanwhile, I sit back some days and wonder how my relationship with Natasha even exists, let alone thrives. An interracial relationship between a white woman and a black man in a gentrified section of an economically polarized city is supposed to be ground zero for the defining conflicts of 21st century social life. By now, we should’ve had a misunderstanding about paying for dinner or doing the dishes that escalates into a heated argument about my male entitlement or her white privilege. If we treated each other the way our divisive politics suggest we should, we’d end up in a ditch of anxiety and isolation.
Relationships are hard enough as it is. They shouldn’t have to carry the additional weight of being a referendum on race relations. Pillow talk between two people shouldn’t have to take the shape of seminars on historical inequity delivered by candlelight. But since that’s the world we live in, I’ve learned something in romance that I think applies to politics: Where there’s mutual respect, there’s no competition between one person’s peace and another person’s self-expression.
On the surface, “no justice, no peace” seems like an ultimatum—yet another artifact of our fractured age. But I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a more optimistic way of framing the future peace we’re building. Because in the words of Cornel West, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Photo of Shaun Scott by Toryan Dixon